This blog is based on an interview with Barbara Webber, executive director of Health Action New Mexico (and mother-in-law of LuckyTamm’s VP, Kat Cox). You can view the full interview on IGTV or below.
When New Mexico had its first COVID-19 diagnosis in March of 2020, the Governor of New Mexico and state health officials were preparing to meet the pandemic head-on. But underlying healthcare issues in the state meant that even the best response from government and health officials could not save the state from the far-reaching effects of COVID-19.
What New Mexico Got Right
In spite of having the odds stacked against it, the state of New Mexico did get some things right, and the governor was particularly singled out for her proactive approach of closing the state. Part of the reason New Mexico was able to act so quickly was because the governor had served as a public health official earlier in her career, and she understood the implications of a pandemic in a state without good healthcare infrastructure in place.
The state issued stay-at-home orders before there was a large number of cases reported, which experts say probably prevented a large number of deaths. New Mexico was also one of few states to push for testing for everyone, even those who are not showing symptoms, which has allowed for those who are infected to be isolated before they can spread the disease. One issue that helped protect New Mexicans before the pandemic broke out was access to health insurance, as New Mexico has one of the lowest rates of uninsured people in the U.S. thanks to Medicaid expansion over the past decade.
Longstanding Inequalities Make Health Issues Worse
One of the biggest problems that New Mexicans face is poverty. As a state that is ranked near the bottom of the U.S. for poverty levels, New Mexicans are more likely to have underlying health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, or high blood pressure. The state’s population is also older than others, which can make them at higher risk of dying from COVID-19. At the same time, New Mexico has generally had sparse medical facilities scattered throughout the state, and even those that exist face underfunding, understaffing, and other issues.
This has compounded the issue of a pandemic that has worse outcomes for the elderly and people with underlying conditions. Not only are many New Mexicans at greater risk of bad outcomes; they are also more likely to have poor access to healthcare services to begin with.
Populations in New Mexico that were already facing inequality have been much harder hit by the pandemic than others in New Mexico. These include individuals who are incarcerated, immigrant populations, and Native American tribes. This overrepresentation is often due to the systemic inequality that Native American tribes have faced in the U.S. since the nation began, and mirrors similar trends throughout the country wherein minority populations make up an outsize proportion of those affected by the disease.
A Difficult Fight for Native American Tribes Against COVID-19
A major issue that has been brought to the forefront during this pandemic is the state of Native American reservations, especially the Navajo Nation in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Although Native Americans from the Navajo Nation, Pueblo tribes, and Hopi tribes make up less than 11% of the state population, they account for more than a third of COVID-19 diagnoses in New Mexico.
Worse yet, many tribal populations do not have access to running water. This means that basic sanitation that can stop the spread of COVID-19, such as hand-washing, is nearly impossible. Furthermore, many tribal members live with their larger family, including grandparents, which puts elderly family members at greater risk of catching the virus.
Because tribal governments are sovereign nations, help must generally come from the federal level. The Indian Health Service has been chronically underfunded for decades, and there was not good enough infrastructure to respond to basic health issues before the pandemic began. Governor Lujan Grisham warned when the pandemic began that it could wipe out entire tribal populations if the U.S. didn’t respond quickly enough. Although measures have been taken in New Mexico especially to address the pandemic in tribal lands head-on, the native populations of the state have already paid an outsized price in lives lost.
Hope for the Future of Healthcare in New Mexico
Although New Mexico’s struggle with COVID-19 has been less deadly than in other states, it has still brought to light a number of places where healthcare reform can be improved. One of those is the national debate over whether health insurance should be tied to employment — an issue where the U.S. stands alone among other developed nations. This issue will continue to grow in importance as more and more people find themselves out of work due to the quarantine shutdown.
Beyond access to insurance, New Mexicans may demand more healthcare services in the state, as well as reforms to nursing homes and group housing settings, where the spread of the pandemic has been extremely difficult to contain. Americans as a whole may also demand better legislation regarding paid sick leave and childcare, as well as minimum wage requirements, which can help populations avoid poor health outcomes, whether there’s a pandemic or not.
Overall, the pandemic has highlighted already existing problems in healthcare in New Mexico and the U.S. as a whole. There is hope that by showing how much these issues affect everyone, we can bring lasting change to our systems to prevent death and suffering in the future.
Watch the interview on IGTV below in two parts.
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The COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine have brought lots of healthcare issues to light in New Mexico. 💉 We spoke with Barbara Webber, executive director of Health Action New Mexico (healthactionnm.org), about what's happening now and what may happen in the future. 📆 This is part 1 of 2 videos.
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